By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
That Tuesday morning, Noor Elashi awoke to red and blue lights flashing through her bedroom curtains as FBI agents swarmed across the freshly cut lawn in front of her small Richardson house. In the early morning mist, the armed agents rushed to her door and began pounding.
"They stood in front of my house as though it were a murder scene," Noor wrote afterward in her journal.
Her father, Ghassan Elashi, sat up in bed, dressed slowly and called his lawyer. Only then did he walk toward the pounding. Before he could turn the lock, three agents slammed through the door and grabbed him.
Majida Elashi watched as her husband was taken away.
"What gives them the right to shatter families?" she said.
The same day, July 27, 2004, FBI agents, acting on a 42-count indictment, arrested the Holy Land Foundation president, Shukri Abu Baker; the director of the California office, Mohammad El-Mezain; fund-raising volunteer Mufid Abdulqader; and the director of the New Jersey office, Abdulraham Odeh. Two others, Haitham Maghawri and Akram Mishal, had fled the country.
The indictment charged all seven with conspiracy to provide material support to a designated terrorist organization and money laundering. In addition, Baker and Elashi were charged with tax evasion. The government had already shut down Ghassan Elashi's business, Infocom, an Arab Web hosting company. In 2005 he was convicted in a Dallas federal court of providing funds to a designated terrorist organization and later sentenced to 80 months in prison.
But the government would not be so fortunate with its case against the Holy Land Foundation, once the largest Islamic charity in the United States. The government's prosecutors lugged into court more than a dozen boxes stuffed with testimony, financial statements, wire-tapped phone transcripts and videos dug up in the backyard of someone who had no connection to the case. The government's evidence was intended to demonstrate "willful intent" to support Hamas through local charities in the West Bank and Gaza under the terrorist organization's control. The evidence included denunciations of Jews and Israel by some of the defendants—denunciations the defense didn't deny.
In his opening statement to jurors, defense lawyer Greg Westfall said, "If it were a crime to want bad things to happen to Israel, we'd be dead in the water." But the Holy Land's defense team argued that the organizations within Palestine that received money were approved as legitimate by the United States and that no evidence was presented proving the foundation sent money to charities controlled by Hamas. After a three-month trial by ordeal that saw jurors so perplexed that one dozed off, another refused to cast any ballot and still another was sent home for reasons unknown, jurors in U.S. District Judge A. Joe Fish's court last week managed to agree on practically nothing.
The jurors did acquit Mohammad El-Mezain on all but one charge of conspiracy. Otherwise the Holy Land trial ended in a hung jury on all remaining charges and frustration for both sides. It was a feeble whimper for a case that began three years before in a big bang of government publicity. The government, says prosecutor Jim Jacks, plans to retry the case.
"It was a waste of time," juror William Neal complained to the waiting press. "The evidence had so many gaps."
Even if the government eventually abandons its case against Ghassan and the Holy Land Foundation, the Elashi family has been so badly shattered by the ordeal that it will be difficult for them to pick up the pieces. Though Ghassan is the direct target, Noor feels the damning allegations against her father fell like radioactive waste on the entire family—allegations of recruiting children to become suicide bombers and inciting anti-Semitic children's skits encouraging people to kill Jews and other acts of violence.
In their mostly Muslim neighborhood in Richardson, the Elashis are known as "the Holy Land family"—the one in the crosshairs of the government's war on terrorism. For years, Noor worried that her conversations were being wire-tapped by federal agents. Turns out they were. And on the same day FBI agents broke through the front door of the Elashi home to seize her father, Noor turned on the television to hear the highest Justice Department official in America label her family evildoers.
U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft stood before television cameras to announce the indictment of her father and six principals of the Richardson-based foundation. The Holy Land Foundation, he said, "claims to do good works," but was, in fact, "funding works of evil."
The government's accusations turned the Elashi family into a target for hate mail and Internet vitriol. Noor's inbox began filling up with bombshells such as this one: "You're pathetic liars, terrorist supporters and enablers. If you want to support Hamas, go live in the Arab world and stop abusing our free speech laws here in the U.S. Israel is the light of the Middle East and you stand for darkness. Curse you all.''
Noor couldn't believe that the same government that had given her father's charity approval to provide millions of dollars in humanitarian aide to hospitals, schools and food missions in Palestine was now accusing him and his organization of committing heinous acts of violence against Jews.
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